Mark McKenzie and Union teammates remain bonded in soccer’s absence


Philadelphia Union center back Mark McKenzie spoke via a phone interview with Tuesday afternoon to discuss social distancing, isolation from teammates, and how a young player copes during this prolonged time away from the game.

Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Two months ago today, Mark McKenzie and his Philadelphia Union teammates learned Major League Soccer would be suspending match play for 30 days. They also learned their training facility along the Delaware River would be closed indefinitely.

The 30-day window was ambitious and maybe a bit naive, considering nine weeks have come and gone since then. But for McKenzie, fresh off his first USMNT senior team appearance while earning a starting center back spot in the first two Union matches of 2020, this unprecedented time with no soccer has provided a young player with an opportunity to learn more about himself as a person off-the-pitch.

“My parents taught me that you can only control what you can control,” said McKenzie. “It’s a matter of looking after yourself. It is difficult being away from the game and not being able to train with teammates. But at the same time it’s a time for each of us to continue to work on building ourselves as individuals so when we come back, we can come back stronger and more united.”

McKenzie repeatedly mentioned the importance of self-discipline during this stretch. For a young player like him, setting a personalized schedule that includes proper nutrition, conditioning, strength training, and rest without the team structured environment at the training grounds can be a bumpy road. But the 21-year old defender seems to be handling it like a seasoned pro.

“Now that we are out of the team structure, we’re creating our own schedule and creating my own agenda and being more independent in that sense,” said McKenzie. “I’ve been planning my days out with my nutrition, work-outs, off the field endeavors, and other off the field business opportunities to broaden myself in that aspect as well – trying to be more than an athlete.”

Not only is McKenzie making every effort to stay on top of his personal fitness, but he’s also sharpening his mind.

“I’ve been studying finances and real estate and possibly thinking about creating my own brand of sorts. I even put out on social media that I may start up a podcast,” explained McKenzie when asked about off the field business ventures. “I’ve been trying to broaden myself off the field and look into ventures outside of football because, at the end of the day, this doesn’t last forever. I’m just trying to become more well-rounded.”

McKenzie mentioned LeBron James serves as a role model for himself, a person who surely has become much more than ‘just an athlete.’ McKenzie found inspiration from Michael Jordan and the 90’s Bulls thanks to ESPN’s The Last Dance as well. And during these times, any source of inspiration should be utilized to its fullest.

“I look at LeBron [James] and what he does and it’s something that I want to emulate in my own way,” said McKenzie. “And you see the type of player Michael [Jordan] was and the type of competitor he was, that lights a fire in me to just strive to be the greatest and the best that I can possibly be in whatever ways I can to help better the team and to help drive the team towards bringing a trophy back to Philly.”

McKenzie mentioned the stressful ups and downs those Bulls teams endured while acknowledging how powerful they became once they bonded together through adversity. It’s an impactful lesson that McKenzie seems to be keen on.

And it’s a lesson he hopes his Union teammates can learn from as well. They’ve been staying in close contact through weekly Zoom meetings and player calls with the goal of learning more about each other and how each guy handles the difficulties associated with isolation.

“Keeping these calls going throughout the week, it helps. It helps kill time and it helps guys get through whatever they’re going through,” said McKenzie. “Just talking about how life is going. We’re all just people at the end of the day and we’re there for each other and helping each other out.”

When you consider some players may be living alone or without family members close by, those weekly calls with teammates become much more important in terms of team bonding. It’s one of several silver linings that McKenzie and his teammates are trying to salvage from soccer’s prolonged absence.

“Off the field, you get to see how guys are when they’re away from everything,” said McKenzie. “With no training going on, you’re on your own so much, now you have to lean on other people and other resources to help you though. You get to see what other guys are going through and how they cope with different times. Ultimately that will carry over when we get back to playing ball again.”

And when exactly they will get back to playing ball is still very much in the air. Reports are trickling out about some imaginative plans of playing in Orlando with each team sending players and staff to live on an isolated campus next month. But as of now, nothing concrete in terms of planning has surfaced.

While some teams across MLS have slowly begun individual workouts, Philadelphia has yet to clear those stern safety protocols to conduct their own.

It’s the uncertainty of it all that can become the biggest nuisance for players. But for McKenzie, he continues to take it all in stride.

“It’s tough not knowing what the outcome is going to be and where the end line is,” said McKenzie. “[But] you have to look at the positive side of things, the half-full perspective. My parents always try to instill that in me: if you look at the negatives of the situation, you start digging yourself a pity hole and you find yourself in a worse position than you were before.”

It’s that positive perspective that aids McKenzie in thinking about his long-term future. Perhaps it’s the sheer ease in which major professional sports can suddenly come to a screeching halt that has McKenzie prepping for post-playing career days. Or maybe it’s inspiring to see a veteran captain like Ale Bedoya go back to school for additional degrees while developing off-field activism/business ventures that have him pondering those next steps.

But one thing is certain, he remains upbeat and steady in a time where it’s so easy to be negative and aimless.

“Everyone wants to get out and play. You can go across the world and feel that. But it’s a matter of understanding the situation we’re dealing with right now,” said McKenzie.

And it seems he understands it very well. As of now, he’ll keep focusing on the idea of self-improvement while continuing to strengthen his bonds with teammates in hopes of a successful yet hectic 2020 soccer season.

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Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports